RTRL.45: The Power of Teacher Empathy (Okonofua, Paunesku, & Walton, 2016)


Okonofua, J. A., Paunesku, D., & Walton, G. M. (2016). Brief intervention cuts suspension rates in half. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(19), 5221-5226.

What did the researchers want to know?

Does an empathic mindset related to student misbehavior result in more positive outcomes than a punitive mindset?

What did the researchers do?

Okonofua, Paunesku, and Walton conducted three experiments. In Experiment 1, they randomly assigned 39 teachers to either an empathic- or punitive-mindset condition. Each teacher was asked to read a short article in which they were reminded either “that ‘good teacher-student relationships are critical for students to learn self-control’ (empathic mindset) or that ‘punishment is critical for teachers to take control of the classroom’ (punitive mindset)” (p. 5221). Then they read three minor misbehavior records, described how they would discipline each student, and rated the extent to which they considered each student a “troublemaker.”

In Experiment 2, the researchers asked 302 college students to “imagine themselves as middle-school students who had disrupted class by repeatedly walking around to throw away trash” (p. 5222). Each student then read a description for how their imaginary teacher (“Mrs. Smith”) responded—either by giving them detention and sending them to the principal (punitive) or by asking them about their behavior and moving the trashcan closer to their desk (empathic). After this, the students rated how much respect they would have for Mrs. Smith and their motivation to behave well in the future.

Experiment 3 was a longitudinal study in which the researchers “tested whether encouraging an empathic mindset about discipline would reduce student suspension rates over an academic year” (p. 5222). Thirty-one teachers at five diverse middle schools in California participated in this study. These teachers participated in two online modules, the purpose of which they were told was “to review common but sometimes neglected wisdom about teaching and to collect their perspectives as experienced teachers on how to best handle difficult interactions with students” (p. 5223). After consenting to participate, each teacher was randomly assigned to either the empathic mindset condition or the control condition. Modules in the control condition focused on using technology to promote learning. For the empathic-condition, the first module focused on “non-pejorative reasons why students sometimes misbehave in class and how positive relationships with teachers can facilitate students’ growth” (p. 5223). The materials encouraged teachers to “understand and value students’ experiences and negative feelings that can cause misbehavior” and reminded them that “a teacher who makes … students feel hear, valued, and respected shows them that school is fair and they can grow and succeed there” (p. 5223). This included stories from students and opportunities for teachers to reflect on how they could incorporate the ideas into their teaching. Two months later, teachers completed the second module, which in the empathic condition focused on reminding them that “students’ feelings about and behavior in school can and do improve when teachers successfully convey the care and respect students crave” (p. 5223). At this time, students were also asked to complete a survey assessing the school climate, specifically focusing on perceived respect from teachers and other school adults. At the end of the school year, the researchers collected students’ suspension rates from each school.

What did the researchers find?

The results of Experiment 1 showed the teachers with an empathic mindset chose to punish students less severely and were less likely to label students as troublemakers than the teachers with a punitive mindset. 

In Experiment 2, students whose teacher responded with empathy reported having greater respect for the teacher and being more motivated to behave well in the future than students whose teacher responded punitively. Furthermore, the greater the respect the student reported having for the teacher, the more motivated they were to behave well in the future.

Experiment 3 results showed that students whose teachers received the empathic-mindset intervention were half as likely to be suspended as students of the control teachers, even when statistically controlled for race, gender, and prior-year suspensions. In addition, students with a history of prior suspension whose teachers received the empathic-mindset condition reported feeling more respected by their teachers than did those who were students of the control teachers.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Students whose teachers take a punitive approach to discipline may feel less respected and less inclined to behave well in class. However, students will likely feel more cared for and respected if we try to have empathy for them, to understand the reasons behind their misbehavior, and to assume positive (or at least neutral) intentions. Doing so can help build a positive, caring relationship with the student, which may lead them to want to do better in the future.

Some ideas from teachers who participated in this study include the following:

“When asked how they ‘would like … to improve your relationships with your students?’ teachers powerfully echoed the intervention themes: For example,

  • ‘[I] greet every student at the door with a smile every day no matter what has occurred the day before’;
  • ‘[I] answer their questions thoughtfully and respectfully no matter what their academic history with me has been’; and
  • ‘I NEVER hold grudges. I try to remember that they are all the son or daughter of someone who loves them more than anything in the world. They are the light of someone’s life!’” (p. 5223)

Further Reading:

This research was featured in the New York Times.

This article provides further insight into teaching with empathy.

This article has ideas for helping students learn empathy.

Dr. Okonofua also co-authored this research study on race and perceptions of student misbehavior.

One thought on “RTRL.45: The Power of Teacher Empathy (Okonofua, Paunesku, & Walton, 2016)

  1. Pingback: RTRL.54: Can Empathy Reduce Implicit Bias? (Whitford & Emerson, 2019) – Everyday Musicality

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